Hikone Buddhist altar make the most of gold gorgeous appearance


Hikone Buddhist altars are Japanese crafts characterized by solemnity and dignity

Hikone Buddhist altar was the first in the Buddhist altar industry to be certified as a traditional craft designated by the Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry, and is a traditional Japanese craft with a long history. The Koto region where Hikone City is located, along with the Kohoku region, has long been a prosperous Buddhist area, but due to the Tokugawa era’s policy of banning Christian religious orders, it became common practice to have a Buddhist altar as proof of non-paganism. Under the strong patronage of the Hikone feudal lord, the wholesale house industry and the associated division of labor were perfected, and the foundation for development was laid along the road known as “Nanakagari” (so called because it has seven curves in a short section), an important point connecting Hikone’s castle town and the Nakasendo (a major road in ancient Japan).

Features of Hikone Buddhist

Hikone Buddhist altar mainly manufactured large gold altars. However, with the changing times, smaller Buddhist altar and Buddhist altar with modern designs are also increasingly being manufactured. In addition, they are gold Buddhist altar with beautiful lacquer coating and gold leaf stamping. The solemn and gorgeous decorations exude a sense of presence, regardless of whether they are large or small. Lacquer coating does more than just add beauty. The three-stage process of “base coating,” “middle coating,” and “top coating” also increases the durability of the wood.

Hikone Buddhist altar uses carefully selected wood for the main body of the altar, but does not use any nails. The “kudenshi” (palace craftsman) uses soft woods such as himeko pine to assemble the palace that will become the roof of the Hikone Buddhist altar. Next, an engraver uses as many as 100 different types of carving knives to carve the design, and a lacquer craftsman applies the lacquer. After that, maki-e and gold leaf pressers apply detailed and brilliant decorations to create the majestic Hikone Buddhist altar. Finally, “Kazari-kanagushi” attach copper and brass metal fittings, and a wholesaler of Buddhist altars completes the assembly. In addition to Hikone butsudan (Buddhist altars), there are Iiyama butsudan and Yamagata butsudan, but there are not many traditional crafts of butsudan.

Hikone Buddhist Altar
Source: Eiraku-ya

History of Hikone Buddhist altar

Influx of Craftsmen

It is said that the origin of Hikone Buddhist altar dates back to the middle of the Tokugawa Edo period (1603-1868), when painters, craftsmen, and kazari metal fittings makers who were engaged in the manufacture of armors and weapons turned to the manufacture of Buddhist altar as a peaceful industry. With the spread of Buddhism among the general public and the patronage of the Hikone feudal lord, the wholesaler system of cottage industry and the division of labor that accompanied it were perfected, and Hikone Buddhist altar developed.

Craftsmen refined traditional crafts and passed down their skills and spirit

Although Hikone was subjected to many restrictions during the chaotic period of the Meiji Era and the effects of World Wars I and II, after the war, the Hikone Buddhist altar Industrial Association was formed, and efforts were made to improve quality by establishing an inspection system, and production continued to grow steadily. The production area expanded to the entire Hikone City area, and the industry made a great leap forward as one of Hikone’s local industries, and continues to this day. In May 1974, the “Law Concerning the Promotion of the Traditional Craft Industry” was enacted, and in November of the same year, a cooperative was established to receive designation as a traditional craft, and in April 1975, the company received designation from the Minister of International Trade and Industry (the first in the industry).

Hikone Buddhist altar
Source: Inoue Butsudan

Manufacturing Methods and Processes

1. Wooden material

First, the woodworker creates the body of the altar from selected natural materials such as zelkova, hinoki, cedar, pine, and staves. The method of assembly is called “hozo-kumi,” which does not use a single nail. There are no blueprints for Hikone Buddhist altar. The height, depth, width, and all other values of the altar are all engraved on a stick, which is called a “stick” and is used as a standard for shaping the altar. There is no standard size for Hikone Buddhist altar, and a new stick is made each time a new Buddhist altar is made, depending on the order.

2. Palace (kuden) railings

The palace is the roof part above the shumidan, and the koran is the handrail-like part placed on the shumidan. Craftsmen called “palatial builders” create small wooden parts and carefully assemble them. There are more than 1,000 precision parts such as gables and rainbow beams, and each pillar and roof tile is painstakingly and precisely assembled, just as in a real temple.

3. Carving

In the carving process, the carver carves patterns into the material that will become the decorative parts of the altar. Depending on where the decoration is to be installed, the carver uses various techniques such as round carving and layered carving, as well as 100 different types of carving knives to painstakingly carve flowers, Buddha, birds, animals, clouds, heavenly maidens, and so on. Particularly, the upper part of the altar, the ranma, is a single piece of wood with deep and thick decorations, where delicate and outstanding techniques are applied. The materials used are cypress and pine.

4. Kazari (ornamental metal fittings)

More than 300 metal fittings are used to decorate each Hikone Buddhist altar. Kazari metal fittings are made by Kazari metal fittings craftsmen. A wide variety of metal ornaments are produced by making full use of various techniques, such as “kebori,” which is used to create flat patterns, and “jibori,” which is used to carve out three-dimensional patterns. Copper and brass are used as materials, and gold and silver are sometimes used as well.

5. Lacquer Lacquer

Lacquer coating is the process of applying natural lacquer to the entire altar, including the body, palace, and carvings. Lacquer on the wood increases the durability of the altar. This process is performed by a craftsman called a lacquerer. Lacquer painting involves many processes, including base coating, middle coating, and top coating, in which the lacquering, grinding, and polishing processes are repeated many times, giving the lacquer a unique, deep look. In particular, Mokume-dashi Nuri, which enhances the beauty of the grain of the wood, is a technique that requires a high level of skill and is a characteristic of Hikone Buddhist altar.

6. Makie (lacquering)

Maki-e is the process of applying patterns to the lacquer-coated shoji panels, drawers, and other parts of the altar. The maki-e artist carefully draws patterns of flowers, birds, landscapes, figures, etc. in colored lacquer. Once the patterns have been drawn, they are sprinkled with gold, silver, or colored powders, or pasted with blue shells for a more luxurious finish. Various techniques are used, such as mudzuri maki-e, in which lacquer is heaped up to make the pattern look three-dimensional, and kendashi maki-e, in which lacquer is applied over the finished pattern and the pattern is polished out.

7. Kinpaku-oshi (gold leaf stamping)

Hikone Buddhist altar (Buddhist altar) is characterized by its luxury, and more than 1,000 pieces of gold leaf are applied to each altar. The process of applying this gold leaf is called kinpaku-oshi, and the craftsman who performs this process is the kinpaku-oshi craftsman. After placing the gold leaf on the parts coated with foil-pressing lacquer, the gold leaf is pressed by hand to make it ready. The same gold leaf will have a different luster and expression depending on the presser, requiring a high level of skill.

8. Assembly

Assembly is the final process in which each of the parts created by the seven craftsmen of the Koubu seven craftsmen are assembled into a single altar. Since there are no blueprints, the work is done while imagining the overall image and considering balance.

Hikone Buddhist altar
Source: Inoue Butsudan


Several craftsmen and wholesalers who support Hikone Buddhist altar still exist in “Nanamagari” today. They have supported the development of Hikone as a local industry in the same place as they have been since the Edo period.



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